Empirical evidence that political discourse online not limited to those one agrees with
November 20th, 2007

Dhavan V. Shah, Louis A. & Mary E. Maier-Bascom Professor and Head of Graduate Studies School of Journalism and Mass Communication Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes:

Really enjoyed the most recent entry on your blog regarding Habermas and his (non)response to your question about the Internet and the Public Sphere. I agree that the “Daily Me” pronouncements in there various forms have received much more attention than empirical
support. To that end, I point you toward two articles we recently
published (one in Communication Research in 2005 and other to appear
this December in Journal of Communication). Both address your
question in some form, placing the Internet within the broader
communication systems that define a post-broadcast democracy.
Included in these empirical models are both face-to-face and computer
mediated political expression and exchange among citizens. Our
results, now replicated and expanded, clearly point to much promise
for the Internet as a sphere for communicative action.. I hope you
find these papers relevant to your continued work. As an aside, I
was at Habermas’ speech at ICA in Dresden, and was disappointed by
his treatment of the Internet and its potential to contribute to the
public sphere. My regard for his thinking remains very high, though
I take his assertions about the Internet much less seriously than his
broader contributions to social theory and philosophy.


Information and Expression in a Digital Age: Modeling Internet Effects on Civic Participation (PDF)

The implications of these findings are twofold. First, even if certain forms of Internet use diminish sociability and community engagement (a claim that we regard with cautious skepticism), the civic potential of interactive civic messaging may work to counter these effects. Although this analysis cannot vindicate the Internet as a cause of social withdrawal, it certainly suggests that when two of the most popular uses of the Internet—browsing and emailing— are used to gain information and express opinions about public affairs, they have substantial potential to affect the health of civil society. Second, the observed effects of interactive civic messaging on participation speak to the potential of the Internet to enable collective action without the temporal, geographic, and size limitations of face-to-face communication. The Internet, by permitting the exchange of views across “long distances, or to many people, can reduce organizational costs, increase noticeability and make ineffective communication networks effective” (Lupia & Sin, 2003, p. 329). It also may be the homogeneous nature of e-mail contacts that produces the effect of civic messaging on participation. In much the same manner that talk radio, with its primarily right-wing orientation, encourages participation among conservatives but not liberals (Hollander, 1997) and homogeneous but not heterogeneous discussion networks facilitate participation (Mutz, 2002b), the electronic exchange of political views free of cross pressures may help explain the mechanisms underlying the effect on civic engagement.


Campaign Ads, Online Messaging, and Participation: Extending the Communication Mediation Model
(PDF — still uncorrected page proofs):

The broader implications of these findings are threefold. First, our findings provide another important variable to consider as an outcome of advertising exposure: information seeking via mass media. That political ads can encourage and discourage information seeking, depending on the volume and negativity of that exposure, is itself an important finding. Second, although this analysis cannot vindicate the Internet as a cause of social withdrawal, it certainly suggests that when two of the most popular uses of the Internet—news consumption and emailing—are used to gain information and express opinions about public affairs, they can stimulate both civic and political participation. Third, the observed effects of interactive political messaging on participation speak to the potential of the Internet to enable collective action and campaign involvement without the temporal, geographic, and size limitations of face-to-face communication (Shah et al., 2005).

The finding concerning the sizable effects of Internet use suggest that young Americans, many of whom are disengaged from public life, but are online in record numbers, may be mobilized through this medium. If political messaging has the potential to encourage new modes of expression, discussion, deliberation, and recruitment among young people who are unconstrained by the inherent limitations of traditional face-to-face forms of citizen communication, the civic and political consequences would be considerable. Future research should explore the effects of political advertising and digital media across generational groups.


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